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Mellon Foundation Awards UMass Amherst $2.65 Million to Expand Slavery North Initiative, Led by Art Historian Charmaine A. Nelson

The History of Art & Architecture Department is proud to announce that the Provost Professor of Black Diasporic Art & Visual Culture, Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson, has been awarded a Mellon Foundation grant of $2.65 million to expand Dr. Nelson’s Slavery North Initiative. This honor will have a profound impact on the institute’s research into slavery in the U.S. North and Canada.

The article below was originally published on January 18, 2024, on the UMass Amherst College of Humanities & Fine Arts site. Click here to view the original post. 

UMass Amherst has been awarded a $2.65 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to expand the Slavery North Initiative, led by founding director Charmaine A. Nelson, provost professor of art history. Slavery North is a one-of-a-kind academic and cultural destination where scholars, thinkers, and artists research and build community that transforms society’s understanding of the neglected histories of Transatlantic Slavery in Canada and the U.S. North. To date, this is the largest Mellon grant awarded to UMass Amherst.

The three-year grant will support the development of Slavery North’s fellowship program for graduate and undergraduate students; a three-person staff; a lecture series; Black History Month panels; an academic conference; an edited academic book; a podcast series; workshops; art and cultural exhibitions; and a historical database that houses primary sources for the study of slavery in Canada and the U.S. North.

“A fellows program is at the heart of this grant so that we can grow this field of research. Since there are not many scholars studying slavery in the U.S. North and Canada, the ability to grow the field is limited,” Nelson says. “Mellon’s generous support will provide fellows with the space, time, and a like-minded community in which to develop their own research and the field at a more rapid pace.”

While most fellowship categories will have no citizenship restrictions, undergraduate fellowships will be offered exclusively to UMass Amherst and other Five Colleges’ honors students. Slavery North will also offer fellowships to visiting scholars and artists working on research or research creation in its mandate areas. The expected yearly cohort will consist of four undergraduate honors students and two artists-in-residence per year, and one fellow in each of the following categories: MA, PhD, and Visiting Research Fellow. Fellows will work together in Slavery North’s recently developed offices at the Newman Center on North Pleasant Street in Amherst, Mass.

A prominent scholar, art historian, educator, author, and the first-ever tenured Black professor of art history in Canada, Nelson says the work of Slavery North sits at the axes of three significant academic blind spots of Transatlantic Slavery Studies: temperate climate regions where the enslaved became the minority of the population; Canada’s often forgotten 200-year history of slavery; and Art History, which Nelson explains has been one of the last disciplines to grapple with the impacts of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery on art and cultural production, representation, and consumption.

Launched in 2020, Slavery North promotes racial inclusion, belonging, understanding, and allyship that improve people’s lives through research and education, cultural activities, artistic production, and critical conversation around difficult issues and histories. It aims to bolster public understanding of the social and cultural impacts of Transatlantic Slavery and its legacies, including how that history manifests in anti-Black racism today.

“If you transform people’s understanding of slavery, you allow them to understand the roots of anti-Black racism that are 500-600 years old. This problem really began in the 1400s, and that’s where the stereotypes of Blackness we see today originate,” says Nelson. “All of these dimensions of anti-Black racism today—the Black maternal health crisis, for example, or that we get stopped more if we’re driving a nice car, or we get asked for an ID when paying for luxury goods—goes back to the hyper surveillance and the brutalization of our ancestors in the period of slavery. For me, the work of Slavery North is teaching people about slavery in these specific regions, making this field more accessible to scholars doing the work, and asking the question: Which countries and regions have been allowed to forget their participation in slavery?”

To move the needle on public understanding of this research, Nelson says it’s important that the arts are a part of the conversation.

“Most Slavery Studies scholars are historians, but an art historian brings an interesting perspective. European empires did not merely create archives of documents, they created a 400-year archive of art and visual culture, much of which was strategically used to justify slavery and reify Eurocentric ideals of race. Therefore, western art has largely been about the representation of human beings within racial hierarchies,” Nelson explains. “It is crucial that knowledge of these shared histories reach the general public. But since most people do not learn about slavery by reading academic publications but through art and media, such as film, what will transform public understanding is the work of filmmakers, playwrights, painters, and performance artists. That, to me, is a huge component of this work.”

In addition, the Mellon grant will help Slavery North ensure historical research documents, such as newspaper ads or bills of sale for enslaved people, are more accessible to scholars around the world. UMass undergraduate student research assistants will work to locate and digitize Transatlantic Slavery research materials and input the data into the historical archive. Summer training workshops for librarians and archivists will help unify how important historical documents across collections are tracked, catalogued, stored, archived, and digitized.

Born in Toronto to Jamaican immigrant parents, Nelson went on to complete her PhD in Art History at The University of Manchester in 2001. She taught at the University of Western Ontario (2001-2003) and McGill University (2003-2020). She then went on to found the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at NSCAD University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada when she was the Tier I Canada Research Chair in Transatlantic Black Diasporic Art and Community Engagement from 2020-22.

When she joined the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2022, Nelson brought the institute with her and reimagined it as Slavery North to combine a focus on slavery in Canada and the U.S. North with a dedicated focus on art and visual culture. As Nelson recalls, “This was an easy decision because both of these regions have historically sought to erase their participation in Transatlantic Slavery.” Slavery North gained official initiative status at UMass in 2022, the first step towards becoming an institute.

With a newly developed physical space at the Newman Center, support from partners like Historic Deerfield and the grant supporting three staff members alongside cohorts of fellows, Slavery North will grow rapidly over the next three years. Nelson says, “I am deeply grateful to Mellon Foundation for this extraordinary support and show of confidence which will allow us to undertake this transformative work.”

The larger vision for Slavery North and the Mellon-funded programs, as expressed in the grant, is to foster “redress, atonement, and reconciliation” and “be a conduit through which to confront and heal these traumatic histories. It is an academic initiative with a social justice mission.”

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Doctor Charmaine A. Nelson

Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson Director & Provost Professor of Art History

Is supported in this work by wonderful Research Assistants, an esteemed Advisory Board, affiliated centres, and dedicated staff at the University of Massachusetts.

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